I’d like to tell you that my appearance at the Moth happened by accident.
What I’d like to say is that I was discovered, minding my own business, telling a personal anecdote to a friend in a Highlands coffee shop when a cigar-chomping man in a pinstripe suit, and a Yankee accent handed me his card and said “Son, you got a STORY there. Would you like to tell that in NEW YORK CITY?” And I said, “Who, ME?” and reluctantly agreed, aw-shucksing myself all the way to Manhattan.
But that would be fiction, and the first rule of Moth stories is they have to be true.
The truth is that I had wanted to perform at the Moth Mainstage for years and campaigned to get there. Unlike the MothStorySLAMs, which are open-mic, the Mainstage series is curated, meaning the Moth invites the tellers, a list that’s included Margaret Cho, Neil Gaiman and Salman Rushdie. I’ve been performing stories for years, mostly working with children. For me, the Moth is Broadway.
I thought I might have one unusual, personal story that could get me there — and I was right. What I didn’t realize was that getting the invitation was in some way, the easy part. The Moth’s tagline is “true stories told live,” and on their stage, you have nowhere to hide, not even from yourself.
”The first time I ever laid eyes on my father was when I was 12 years old and he showed up on the CBS Evening News.”
That was the basic pitch I sent to Moth senior producer Jenifer Hixson, whom I’d met when she came to Louisville in 2011 to help launch the local edition of the Moth StorySLAM. When I first mentioned the story to Jen, she said, “That’s incredible,” and asked me to email it to her. I did. Time passed. I periodically emailed again, knowing I was treading the line between persistent and irritating.
The truth is I felt a little like I was cheating by offering this particular story. That’s because it sounded like a bigger deal than it actually had been. I grew up with my mom and my adoptive stepfather (also known as Dad). My birth father had been a combat veteran who later became close with the mother of a fellow soldier who’d been killed. A CBS reporter did a story about them for Memorial Day 1983. Seeing my birth father for the first time this way was weird, sure, but it hadn’t changed anything, and in the “Pitch a Story” section of the Moth website, it says, “Tell us … how your story changed you.”
Nonetheless, two months ago, Jen asked if I’d be interested in telling my story as part of a Mainstage show called “Pulling Focus: Stories of Insight.” Co-sponsored by the PBS series “POV,” the event would feature four other tellers who’d been involved in documentaries, either as producers or subjects. The Moth would fly me to New York, where I would be paid, lodged, per diem-ed!
I said yes.
Soon, Jen and I traded dozens of emails, texts and phone calls at all hours, laughing, crying, swearing, and indulging our inner story-nerds: Which moments should be described in detail? Which summarized or cut? If I set up this question here, does the answer pay off there? A married mother of two who prefers newsboy hats and vegetarian food to pinstripes and cigars, Jen showed a kind of X-ray vision for narrative; tell her your tale and she’ll see simultaneously
a) the story you’re trying to tell
b) the story you’re telling without meaning to
c) the story you’re trying hard not to tell
The process took on some urgency, because we both knew that soon, I would be standing on stage at The Players club in Manhattan, telling this story to a discerning crowd of storytelling devotees, some of whom had paid upwards of $400 to be there. My story needed to be shaped and whole, needed to answer the audience’s potential questions, like:
”Did you and your parents talk about your father he was on TV?” Jen asked.
“Not really,” I said.
”Did you ever meet your father?”
”Yes, a few years later. He eventually became kind of like a weird sort of uncle.”
”Why aren’t you angry?”
”You don’t seem angry. You were a kid, your father’s not around, nobody wants to talk about him, he shows up in this weird way. Why wouldn’t you be?”
I laughed because I had no answer.
Two days before the show, my wife and three sons wished me luck when I flew to New York to rehearse in person for Jen and the Moth staff (nearly all of whom, interestingly, are women). When I arrived at their crowded, bullpen-style office (which is literally on Broadway), I realized that the Moth was investing thousands of dollars, untold hours and some measure of its own reputation in me telling one story for 10 minutes. I didn’t want to let them down.
The morning of the show, I tried to embed the story in my brain by whispering it to myself on a meandering walk from Midtown to SoHo. (I figured it was New York — what’s one more guy talking to himself?)
Moth-style storytelling requires a balance because the story has to be structured, focused and articulate, but the teller needs to sound conversational, needs to avoid what Moth-ers call “head-in-the-desk-drawer syndrome.” That’s when tellers — bless their hearts — get so focused on remembering the exact wording of their story that they’re not fully present for the audience, which undercuts the whole point of the Moth, which is to connect people through stories.
Somewhere around Gramercy Park, I realized that I if I was going to be honest with the audience, I had to be honest with myself.
Of course I was angry. Had been for 30 years, but couldn’t admit it. Seeing my father on TV instead of in person had hurt and confused me, as had my parents’ unwillingness to talk about him. Even as a child, I was already telling stories – like the one I’d made up to explain his absence and their reticence: I told myself it had all been my fault.
There, on the sidewalk, I understood all this for the first time, and also realized that I would have to say this onstage or else the story I’d come here to tell wouldn’t be true. I ran back to the hotel and called my mother in Kentucky.
My mom has devoted herself to loving and caring for me for 42 years. I knew what I had to say would hurt her, and I didn’t want to, didn’t know if I even had the right. But about an hour before soundcheck, I told her everything I’d always been afraid to put into words.
”I understand, honey,” she said. “And I’m so sorry.” She said they hadn’t really known what to do, when or how to talk about our family past. I asked Mom, who’s also a writer, how she’d feel if I talked about it in front of a bunch of New York strangers.
”It’s your story,” she said. “Tell it.”
I was the last teller of the night. I felt nervous until the host called my name, then it was too late to be nervous. The spotlight hid most of the 265 faces in the room, but I could hear the audience, and they offered me a deep and nourishing silence. I found the words, one by one, to tell them my family’s whole story of confusion, fascination, anger, fear, regret, acceptance, forgiveness.
At the end, the applause of those New York strangers carried me to my seat, through the night, and all the way back to Louisville.
The Moth helped me understand that sometimes, the stories we want to tell aren’t the ones we need to tell. And sometimes, even true stories, like the people who live them, can change.
Originally published in the Louisville Courier-Journal, August 25, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
Graham Shelby is a communications expert with extensive experience in broadcasting, education, business and the arts. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kentucky and a master’s in creative nonfiction from Spalding University.